What is no good for the hive is no good for the bee. — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
One of the most interesting and perilous periods in the history that unites publishing, journalism, information, scholarship, technology, epistemology, and science is occurring right now. We are getting a master’s class in a typically remote patch of obfuscation, diversion, and shady vocabulary, from “fake news” to “collusion” to “cyber” to “covfefe.” This all has become something of great interest to me, and I’ve spent the bulk of the past months writing about it. Each incident and trend seems worthy of exploration and cogitation.
Underlying many of our information maladies is the abundance of information, facilitated by new technologies to be harder to manage and resist than ever. We’ll call it “abundance” to be nice, but it’s really a dizzying onslaught at this point, one that is harder and harder to escape. This so-called abundance requires information to be accessible, otherwise the abundance is merely theoretical. Information that is easily called to hand naturally supports business models that allow the information to be free (no financial cost) at the point of use. So we have free wi-fi, free news, and free feeds of opinions and headlines. This combination of “free” and ubiquitous information has changed the world.
Change is not always positive.
While our own initiatives to increase access (OA publishing, delayed free access, and so forth) have played some role in increased access, the rise in mobile computing, seen in the 2017 update on Internet Trends from Mary Meeker, suggests that the smartphone has been the most significant revolution in information access. In 2010, adults were spending about 40 minutes per day with digital media on their mobiles; now, they spend 3.1 hours per day, an increase of 4x. Overall, time spent with digital media has increased since 2010 from 3.2 hours per day to 5.6 hours per day, with all of the increase caused by increased information access via mobile devices. Since 2007, 2 billion smartphones have come into use.
In India, according to this same report, people spend per week two hours with print, four hours with television, and 28 hours peering into their mobile devices. Mobile is 82% of their time with media.
Mobile is central to social media. Facebook’s app is on 85% of all smartphones worldwide, and accounts for more than 65% of Facebook’s traffic in the US. The network effects may be innately anticompetitive, economists are beginning to think, with some worrying that the dominance of Google (Maps, search), Amazon (shopping), and Facebook (social) — increasingly via mobile devices — is contributing to economic slowdowns, wage gaps, and job stagnation. Economists’ concerns include worries about stifled innovation by entrepreneurs, who can be stymied by the power of these and their reach. The advertising business model adds to the anti-competitive puzzle, according to a recent article in BusinessWeek:
They don’t engage in the predatory behavior of yore, such as selling goods below the cost of production to steal market share and cripple competitors. After all, the services that Facebook and Google offer are free (if you don’t consider giving up your personal data and privacy rights to be a cost). However, academics have documented how these companies employ far fewer people than the largest companies of decades past while taking a disproportionate share of national profits. . . . Google and Facebook Inc. together control about 56 percent of the mobile ad market. . . . [one expert] pegs Facebook’s share of mobile social media traffic, including the company’s WhatsApp, Messenger, and Instagram units, at 75 percent.
For users, the information on mobile devices has many sources — emails, texts, social media, news, data apps, photos, sports, trivia, games. Via the smartphone, the entire information world has been blended down into a smoothie in which the various ingredients are harder to identify at the end of the day. Where did I hear that? Why do I now think that? What was that story again?
In some ways, the infrastructure of mobile pushes to make all information equal — equally shareable, equally formatted, and equally interesting. And because it passes by us equally quickly and with equal superficiality, the blender’s whir follows us throughout the day, macerating sources, facts, and headlines into an indistinct swirl. Even making a site responsive so that it reformats well on mobile devices means making compromises and choices, often dropping or suppressing functionality or detailed information. When the simplicity assumptions of mobile return to desktop design, the compromises in detail and fidelity can become the new normal. (Perhaps the PDF is still valued because it’s more detailed and less subject to design trends.)
This all has fed into a persistent false equivalency of information, as branding, in-depth reading, and temporal relationships all smudge away with flicks, gestures, likes, and shares. Given how superficial information and our familiarity with it has modified our critical faculties and attention spans, it’s not terribly surprising to read that spreading misinformation via social media, which is largely consumed now on mobile devices, is becoming standard practice for many governments around the world. We’re almost to the point where information has become like studies about nutrition — we wait for more information, leaving our views malleable. This has major implications.
We want to believe that whoever is paying for the information we enjoy is equally if only indirectly committed to the information’s quality, veracity, and accuracy
Underneath it all are the business models. It’s here where free information’s gets its power — from advertisers, sponsors, and the like. These models, sourced from producers rather than consumers, are easier to exploit and more prone to conflicts of interest, as I’ve written about before. We want to believe that whoever is paying for the information we enjoy is equally if only indirectly committed to the information’s quality, veracity, and accuracy — or that we’re able to tell when they are not. This is not necessarily the case. Most social media and mobile-enabled business models are committed to clicks, traversals, and advertising. This means mini-information that requires continued browsing (listicles and the like), and smaller, more superficial items that lead to deeper content. Having so much information at hand spreads out the sources, so there aren’t many single sources to justify a subscription. This leaves advertising, information arbitrage, and sponsorship as the other options. These weaker business models proliferate on mobile devices, especially around proven information sources.
There are important values-laden incentives within the various business models — individual subscription, site licensing, Green OA, Gold OA, advertising, and sponsorship. The business models are not equivalent in their effect or incentives.
This recently came up in an essay by Richard Poynder about what he sees as the prevalence of sponsorship driving the information landscape. While some of his assertions struck me as a bit of a reach (e.g., I don’t think publishers were secretly sponsoring meetings and lobbying to drive OA acceptance), the meta-argument that business models have consequences and can’t be viewed as equivalent is important:
. . . more and more content is being funded by the producers rather than the readers. This has a number of consequences. Above all, it has made it increasingly difficult to distinguish neutral information and reporting from partisan content created solely to serve the interests of the creator/sponsor.
As the subscription model has been sidelined and shamed in scholarly publishing (it is flourishing nearly everywhere else, it seems — from Amazon Prime to Netflix to box services), there has been a rise in sponsored content in many scientific settings, in addition to OA and other non-subscription revenue approaches that depend on producers paying. There is a reluctance to even pursue subscriptions, as if asking people to pay for something of value is dirty or embarrassing. As Poynder writes:
. . . the widespread view that paywalls and subscriptions are not acceptable in an online world. The implications of this are considerable.
These implications can be especially insidious on social platforms and mobile devices, where information loses a lot of provenance. A recent study found that more than half of the hematologist-oncologists using Twitter have a conflict of interest that they cannot or do not disclose via the platform. The information may be good or bad, but what the user possesses is incomplete. The device inhibits presentation or scrutiny of the information, and because the producer has paid for the information to be purveyed, there is no incentive to improve things for the user.
Producer-funded publications are not new. Sponsored journal supplements have been around for decades. The sponsorship information was easily discerned, and supplements were easily identified as information readers needed to take as preliminary or flattering to the sponsor. But the sophistication and integration of these new content sponsorships have increased significantly, even as the user’s ability to detect the sponsor or funder has diminished. Think of how subtle the “Promoted” link in Twitter has become. Or that sponsored section in Nature. Or the sponsored microsite.
Then, reflect on how if the subscription model were working better, your business might change its policies on accepting sponsorships or building sponsored microsites. The business model drives editorial choices, just as in OA publishing it tends to drive the market toward higher throughput.
Ultimately, the reliance on producer-side funding models led by Silicon Valley, their disciples, and our received wisdom about mobile and Millennials has been caused by a lack of commitment to the inherent values superiority of the subscription model. We can find counter-examples all around us. HBO can stand being sued by a coal CEO who allegedly was inspired by a conversation with a squirrel. Netflix can afford to pivot their entire infrastructure and model from mail-order DVDs of other people’s content to streaming original content. Amazon can have Prime Day for their Prime subscribers, creating a subscription-based quasi-holiday. There are now more than 5 billion mobile subscriptions in the world — paying for the underlying service. You’ll notice not one of these has anything to do with print.
The subscription model is not dead outside of publishing. In fact, subscriptions to newspapers surged when people began to worry about “fake news.” Millennials are even paying for subscriptions to news services. Now, the majority of Americans say they are paying for their news, either via print or online subscriptions (or some combination of the two). If you add in those using a free source who might consider paying for it, you’re talking about 4 out of 5 Americans who are paying for, or considering paying for, news. Magazines and newspapers lead the news sources benefiting from these subscription dollars.
Readers and users understand that paying for information means getting better information. The subscription model aligns the interests of producers and consumers of information better than any model available. Are we prepared to rationally consider the pros and cons of the various business models in the Digital Age?